Release of chronic wasting disease plan delayed; outreach continues

Saturday, June 15, 2019 | 6:46 PM

It’s all about speed when it comes to controlling chronic wasting disease.

And yet, the Pennsylvania Game Commission is delaying release of its disease management plan.

That’s by design, said Bryan Burhans, executive director of the agency. The new plan was due this month, but he didn’t feel like it was ready. Instead, the commission will release it at a to-be-determined date.

It’s a matter of risk versus reward, he said.

The commission only will get “one shot” at gaining public acceptance for its plan, he said. He doesn’t want the commission to swing and miss.

“We know that if we don’t have hunter support (and) legislative support for our efforts, we will fail,” Burhans said.

That became clear last fall.

Then, the commission planned to remove thousands of deer from disease management area 2 in southcentral Pennsylvania. That’s ground zero for the disease.

Of the 250 free-ranging whitetails confirmed to have CWD in Pennsylvania since 2012, 91% have come from three counties there: Bedford (122), Fulton (66) and Blair (41).

The idea was to reduce deer densities in the disease area, using sharpshooters as well as hunters, while simultaneously putting GPS collars on deer to track their spread, movement and more.

Public backlash from hunters and lawmakers killed that, though.

Burhans doesn’t want the commission to falter again, hence the change in the plan’s release.

“We’ve got to take our time to make sure that we engage our hunters because they’re our most important ally in this battle against chronic wasting disease,” he said.

In the meantime, the disease continues to spread.

Two of the state’s disease management areas — places with CWD, where special rules govern how hunters can hunt and what they can do with deer they harvest — are expanding. Disease management area 2 in particular is growing by about 2,000 square miles.

On its western edge, it’s moving into additional parts of Cambria and Somerset counties and for the first time into portions of Indiana and Westmoreland counties.

What happened on its eastern edge is most troubling, however.

Courtney Colley, the commission’s CWD communications specialist, said the commission found two free-ranging deer there, one in Juniata County, another in Perry. Both were 20 miles from the closest previous CWD-infected deer.

That’s troubling enough. But Colley said two other things make those cases concerning.

One, both were adults. And two, the Juniata County animal already was exhibiting clinical signs of the disease when found.

“Because the incubation period for chronic wasting disease is 18 to 24 months, it is most likely that those deer have been shedding the prion (that causes the disease) in the environment in that area for months, and there is the possibility that other deer in the area are probably infected,” she said.

“So those are of special concern to us.”

Science suggests when CWD reaches a certain point in a population, bad things happen. One study in the West found mule deer numbers dropped by 19 percent one year after wasting disease infected a herd.

In Wisconsin, Colley said, preliminary results from another study suggest whitetail numbers drop by 75 percent in one year post introduction of disease.

There have been some success stories in dealing with CWD, though, she said.

The disease first popped up in New York in 2005. Hunters and sharpshooters killed about 400 deer within three weeks of that discovery.

Wildlife officials haven’t found wasting disease anywhere in that state since, Colley said.

Illinois and Minnesota, meanwhile, found the disease in 2002 and ’10, respectively. They launched immediate efforts to increase hunter harvest while simultaneously using sharpshooters to kill additional deer, she said.

They haven’t eliminated the disease. But they’ve kept prevalence rates down, she said.

Wisconsin, by comparison, stopped herd-reduction efforts in 2007. West Virginia never instituted any at all.

And in those states, CWD prevalence rates are topping 25 percent in some areas.

Colley said she’s hopeful Pennsylvania will write success stories more similar to those authored by states continually working at controlling the disease. But that will take public support, she said.

“Ultimately, hunters are our first line of defense against chronic wasting disease,” Colley said.

So the commission will do some statewide human dimensions research to see how much the public knows about and understands chronic wasting disease. It also will attempt to figure out how far hunters and the public are willing to go to control it, Colley said.

It also will hold public meetings in various areas with the disease.

The hope is, if everyone comes together, the best results are possible, Burhans said.

But he warned that even then there will be no return to the old days, when disease was not an issue for white-tailed deer.

“Two things we’ve got to know about chronic wasting disease. Number one, we’ll never eradicate it. Number two, we’ll never stop the spread,” Burhans said.

“All we can hope to do is keep the prevalence rate down to a reasonable level and slow the spread as much as possible.”

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